Why Do We Love Spooky Stories?

“Spookiness is, after all, the real purpose of the ghost story. It should give you the creeps and disturb your thoughts.” – Roald Dahl

Why, we might ask, are we so fond of stories that give us the creeps?  Wouldn’t you think we’d avoid tales that make us shiver, that bring a chill to the spine, that make us jump at the scratch of a wispy tree branch on our windowpane, as the wind howls outside like a banshee?

The truth is: we love spooky stories!

At SpookyWeb, we should be able to offer some explanation. So, here goes . . .

  1. The Cool Factor. When push comes to shove . . . or ghostly touch turns to scream . . . ghosts and goblins and other supernatural things are kind of cool. They can do some amazing things. Like walk right through walls or locked doors. Or float in the air. And that ice-cold touch on the shoulder . . . fun to hear your victim scream, right? These supernatural abilities to lurk and skulk and scare are super-powers that we might enjoy having, at least for a little while.
  2. Justice Must Be Served. At their core, spooky stories are often about some issue of a grave (pun intended) injustice done and not yet punished. Ghosts linger because they have a mission that must be finished before they can go to their eternal rest. Some terrible wrongdoing must be revealed – the perpetrator, who smugly thought he or she got away with some evil deed, pointed out with a ghostly finger of shame. Some unfinished business needs to be resolved. Ghosts need to set the record straight. They wander and pester us until they can wrap it up.
  3. Humor Rules in the End. Most of all, we like spooky stories because they make fun of our fears. Since we understand these are just stories, we stay in control. Even if we get a little spooked, we know we can close the book or press the pause button or wait till the theater lights go up before we slip out of the dark theater. Consider the progression of a scary tale. As it develops . . . as we suspect there’s a ghost in the attic or a ghoul in the graveyard or a zombie in the alley . . . we shiver. When the ghost springs forth, we scream. And then . . . we laugh. As Stephen King has pointed out, we experience a catharsis. This is a sudden release of emotional energy – a surge of fear, followed by a good laugh at ourselves for having been so afraid, to have been so gullible and foolish, or within the story, to have gotten ourselves into a ridiculously hopeless situation. Why did we decide to spend the night in a haunted house, or go down in the cellar alone, or walk from the campfire out into the dark woods – despite the fact that everyone else who has done so up to that point in the story has strangely disappeared?

In the end, humor rules, whether it is outright humor as in the funny spooky books of R.L. Stine or Bruce Coville or Raymond Bial, or more realistic scariness in dark fantasy fiction, aka the horror genre.

Spooky stories, whether written in a serious or a comic tone, make fun of our fears. And this helps us deal with those irrational feelings, our unease that there’s a monster under the bed or a witch waiting in the dark woods. We may not conquer those feelings of having “the creeps,” but we can certainly laugh at them.

As the blurb for Bruce Coville’s Goblins in the Castle says:

“What moans at midnight in Toad-in-a-Cage Castle? Toad-in-a-Cage Castle was filled with secrets—secrets such as the hidden passages that led to every room, the long stairway that wound down to the dungeon. . . . But it was the mysterious night noises that bothered William the most—the strange moans that drifted through the halls of the castle where he was raised.”

He wanted to know what caused them. Then one night he found out…

“A shivery treat for readers, who will identify with the stalwart William as he ferrets out the castle’s scary secrets and rights a long-existing wrong.” — ALA Booklist

It’s all about that special, shivery, savory treat . . . of spookiness!

[For more reading ideas, here’s a worthy list of some children’s and young-adult spooky books for kids, offered by a librarian at the New York Public Library: “Dark, Creepy, Scary, Spooky Crossover Books.”]

This is a guest post by Philip Martin, author of several books on writing and literature, including How To Write Your Best Story, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, and The Purpose of Fantasy.

One Reply to “Why Do We Love Spooky Stories?”

  1. Catharsis turns the key to creepy stories. Emotional release makes any story worth reading or hearing. Listening to something disturbing, even horrible leads in the end to more happiness, even if you just say. ‘Woah, I’m glad I didn’t lose my head! Something else makes a haunted story lock on the imagination.
    I perform “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” every October in Sleepy Hollow, giving over forty performances. People come in believing the Headless Horseman a Christopher Walkenesque creature swinging a battle-axe. They want to cringe and jump. Washington Irving, unbeknownst to most, masterfully wove in humor. Laughs heighten the horror to give the catharsis.

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